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Bully Math Teachers Common?

  1. Aug 16, 2014 #1
    I had a discussion with two friends over this topic the other night and they argue/claim that in math you see bully teachers more so than in other academic subjects. I reminded them that they were basing their observations on a relatively small and anecdotal sample size, but it nevertheless piqued my curiosity.

    I myself have had a bully math teacher before. Basically, this is someone who exhibits several of the following traits:

    1.) Is arrogant.
    2.) Dislikes questions being asked.
    3.) Give very short - if any - replies that are often not very helpful.
    4.) Makes fun of or derides in some way those who are not very competent in the subject.
    5.) Openly questions students' intelligence (esp. if they try and ask simplistic questions).

    My friends' claim was that this is just a very common thing to see in mathematics and so I'm wondering if there is any truth to this in others' experiences? Also, if this is a problem, then why does it seem so prevalent in math versus other subjects?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 17, 2014 #2


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    At which level of instruction is this "bullying" from Mathematics teachers? Most students do not like to use or study Mathematics, especially at the early college level and below. Those students will project some unfavorable opinions about their dislike of the subject onto the teacher. Put so many of these students into a regular classroom size group with one mathematics teacher and you know what kind of stress this puts onto this one teacher. He is treated in exchange for his lesson-planning, homework and examination assessment efforts; with a group of students most of whom do not study enough, do not study the course everyday, skip or do less than their full homework assignments, or are too grade-focused and not enough learn-focused.

    Realize too, that class time is somewhat limited and the focus must be on lesson delivery. Studying and understanding is the students' job, and much of this needs attention BEFORE class and AFTER class.
  4. Aug 17, 2014 #3
    Personally, I can say the following about my math teacher:

    1. Yes, a little bit.
    2. No, not in general. But she hated what everyone hates: After two weeks on the scalar product, someone asks "What is the scalar product?". This was at a high school (to be precise: the German Gymnasium, being the kind of school intented for those who plan to attend university) specialized on math, science and technology. One had to paas a special test to be accepted there. In other words: For two reasons, one should think of attending that school as the result a completely voluntary decision; Consequently, one would expect students to commit and prepare for each lesson. But that will probably always stay a problem: Students always perceive school as boring business, never as a chance for themselves. And maths is definitely not the most fun subject one could imagine. Therefore, they do not commit for it. Though, it is not the teacher's job to learn for the students, but to help them learning.
    3. That's true. As a pf member, you probably know how difficult it is to give helpful clues. This is due to imprecise problem statements, first, and senseless questions, second. The latter arise from improper use of terms (because the pupil has not understood them). This problem is natural, but hard to treat as mathematics uses a rather complex and dense network of definitions, one referring to another. You probably know how much time it takes to become halfway familiar with a new theory and its definitions and theorems. Statement 3 is, according to my observation, true even for the most ambitious math teachers.
    4. I had 3 different math teachers at high school and this was not true for any of them. However, I know of one teacher who did this. He even made fun on his trainee teacher once when she concluded the premise of a proof from the assertion. :P
    5. That's true.

    On the other hand: Now I see tomorrow's teachers as fellow students and I openly question their intelligence. Maybe the next generation of math teachers will be different. (It is to say that I come from Eastern Germany [former GDR] where teacher was one of the most accepted jobs by the communist party and therefore some very intelligent people became it - those are still today's teachers, most of them are 40+; Nowadays, teachers are not very well-paid and I [and many others] perceive to-be teachers as those who simply don't have other interests; very few idealists, though)
  5. Aug 17, 2014 #4
    I don't have any *professional* comments about teachers' attitudes towards students' questions because as a matter of fact there would always be people (from other subjects and fields inclusive) with bad ones. I used to suffer from several of them; their replies to mine also contained sarcasm thinking I might have been made such questions to "challenge" how their IQ scores were although I never meant to; I was a young student and I wasn't thinking "that" far into older people's daily food and fame fights. What they taught me was much enough for me to promise myself to be a better, kinder and more gentle person. o:)
  6. Aug 17, 2014 #5
    I have never once encountered a "bully" math teacher in my life and find it hard to believe they even exist. While it's certainly possible that some exist, I have noticed that every single time I've spoken to a classmate that claims their teacher hates them I quickly realize they're irrational and making excuses for poor performance.

    In a math course there is no way of wiggling your way out of failing a test. You either understand the material and can get the one correct solution or you cannot. Why do people feel insulted if a professor fails them? It's never personal. It's 100% up to the student to master the material and get it right.

    No one ever accuses the easy A hippy dippy humanities professor of hating them. They don't expect anything out of you and you're out of there with a grade you don't deserve.
  7. Aug 17, 2014 #6
    This is a minor league bully - the major league bully undermines those who *are* competent in the subject. They are everywhere in academia, from school to University level, and certainly not limited to mathematics teachers. You are bound to encounter some on your path through academia. My advice would be to not take them on directly, but to take extreme defensive action, and try and go round them, with as much help as you can get from nice people (staff & students & forum members.)

    For accounts of such beasts, "campus novels" are always worth reading. Try Stoner by John Williams, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury, for starters.

    I've just read a great account from Paul Auster's Report from the Interior, in which he writes a letter to himself about his encounter with a major league bully: "... you had navigated yourself through one half of your college career with no pedants or stuffed shirts in sight, no bad eggs or disgruntled souls to inflict their unhappiness on you, and then you ran into the brick wall that was Professor L, the bored administrator..." (p. 215)

    Luckily for Auster he had Allen Mandelbaum as an Uncle, and various other good eggs on his side, to get him past Professor L. (In physics terms, that's like having Feynman as an Uncle!)
  8. Aug 17, 2014 #7
    You must be very young, and very lucky.

    The major league bully has ways of getting even the best to fail. I had a biology teacher at school who instead of preparing classes just read out his University notes on the topic in a flat monotone - way too much detail, way over our heads, way to make a subject boring! (He actually seemed hungover, probably spent his evenings drinking rather than preparing...) I might have complained, but who would have believed me? He could just say he was providing additional material to "stretch" us. So I went round him. I found a standard textbook designed for my course (he didn't bother giving us a textbook!), I sent away for past papers (he didn't set tests!), took as much as I could from his monotone (which wasn't much!), and after a lot of hard work on my own, aced the course. But some very good students did badly because of him.

    This is just one example from many! I did also have a bully maths teacher, but he was faily minor league. I ignored the sarcasm and put downs, and he delivered a "reasonable" course. But he did alienate some really bright guys, driving some into the (shock, horror) humanities.

    Read a few campus novels or memoirs, humanities types seem to write a lot of these, and all of them have at least one humanities professor hating the hero.

    The hippy, dippy "don't expect anything out of you and you're out of there with a grade you don't deserve" type is also very common, but he's not limited to the humanities. And, conversely, not all humanities professors are so lenient.
  9. Aug 17, 2014 #8


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    I think this occurs to various degrees across academia. I had a professor for a graduate course who once responded to a question from a rather poor student with "I would have thought this was obvious even to you." Then he proceeded to just move on with the lecture, without further clarification. Was this appropriate? No. But the man is a veritable giant in his field and I suppose he can get away with it.
  10. Aug 17, 2014 #9
    I have had only one math teacher that feel into this criteria, and this was my pre-calculus/trigonometry teacher in tenth grade. In addition to these things she would call me out of the hallway if she saw me passing by her class, start an argument with me and if I said anything at all she would send me to the principal's office. She would also isolate me to a desk in the corner separate from the entire class during mid term, finals and all tests between the mid term and final because she did not want me to cheat and she would stand over me for a little over the third of the test time..about 20 minutes continuous and several times throughout the test. When we did homework and turned it in to be graded I am the only one whom she would give immediate feedback and it always had to do with the layout of my work, either my handwriting was too small or too big or I took up too much space on a page for a problem. I actually kept doing my homework but stopped turning it in and also stopped answering her if she would call on me in class and would not raise my hand because of her comments. I think this is what led to her thinking that I was cheating during tests because I literally made the highest grade on every test and exam. At one point I even told her that it is not logical that she should accuse me of cheating because my test score was so much higher than even the second highest scoring person in the class and that person was all the way across the classroom. I was sent to the principals office again for talking back to her and they called my mom into the school. I remember she even sent me to the principals office for looking out the blinds before the class started although several other classmates were looking out the blinds before me and called me over to see what they were looking at. After the final (which was comprehensive) she told me that it annoyed her that I still managed to pass the tests even though I was not doing my homework or participating in class and she could not understand how I was making such good grades on the tests and exams without her feedback. I was so happy when I was done with her class and my mom and dad actually sent me back to my home school for 11th and 12th grade. The school I was attending for 9th and 10th grade was a specialized art school that I had to audition to get into.

    I can safely say that every other math teacher I have had throughout my education has been very patient, entertaining of questions, and excited about the progress of their students. Even going above and beyond to explain things to me if I brought the class to a halt with my questions, or helping me outside of class if needed. My Calculus III teacher was the most awesome of all, he even did examples in class related to astrophysics if he saw that I was struggling in an area...like eclipsing binaries and trinaries.
  11. Aug 17, 2014 #10
    I did not have any teacher who would bully me. Sure, many were demanding and harsh, but I could never say they were bullying.

    That said, I did notice some (math) teachers who would bully other students whom they found unworthy of doing mathematics. It's sad.
  12. Aug 17, 2014 #11


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    Never had one bully me, but you really have to put yourself in a math teachers shoes. Most people don't give a darn about math. I find it funny and ironic whenever there are kids that don't pay attention, then complain they don't understand, then the teacher gives them crap about it.
  13. Aug 17, 2014 #12
    Now that you mention it, the only discipline in which I have had "bully" teachers like this is, in fact, math. My linear algebra teacher, when asked a question, was known for his response of "This is a very basic concept. If you do not understand this, you would perhaps be wise to drop the class." He would also stare at you when you asked a question that he didn't deem worth responding to. My real analysis professor was the same way; asking a question was a quick way to get on her bad side. It is very difficult to do well in an upper-level mathematics course when you are degraded for asking questions.
  14. Aug 17, 2014 #13


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    1) 2) and 3) may not be "student friendly" teaching, or even effective teaching, but they are not bullying IMO.

    4) could be counted as bullying, unless it is really a verion of 5).

    5) is harsh but sometimes necessary IMO. Students get into classes where they just don't belong because they don't know the necessary prerequisite material, whatever it says on their academic transcript. If they don't get the message that they are wasting not only their own time but everyone else's, something has to be done for the benefit of the rest of the class.

    If you count all of these as "bullying", you are probably going to get a very big surprise when you leave college and start work IMO - unless you plan on making a career out of being a "professional victim".
  15. Aug 17, 2014 #14
    I don't think that is true at all.

    I don't really recall having encountered that myself for math teachers (perhaps a few short answers here and there). I've taken a lot of math classes through the very upper reaches of undergrad and a one at the lower reaches of grad level.

    I did encounter it once full on with a physics professor and to various, generally fairly minor, degrees among some physics professors and among others in other fields which were nothing to get upset over.
  16. Aug 17, 2014 #15


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    Unfortunately it's not all that black and white, even in mathematics. Consider a problem where there are 10 points assigned for the problem and the student makes a minor error - say missing a negative sign somewhere. The answer is wrong, but the process is right. I've seen cases
    where such situations result in the professor assigning a zero.

    And professors have a responsibility to teach the material properly and examine students fairly, so you can't immediately jump to the conclusion that a student with a complaint has failed to master the material.

    Unfortunately there will always be a spectrum of personality traits and teaching skill among professors. And sometimes you do get students who ask less-than-intelligent questions.
  17. Aug 17, 2014 #16


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    Yes, I've seen some teachers like this, I guess they were bullied in school so they try to compensate for it now that they are old and bald.
  18. Aug 17, 2014 #17


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    Before college my math teachers were always the best teachers of the year for me, hands down. My calc BC teacher was the best teacher I've ever had. I still talk to a couple of my past math teachers on facebook. In college my math teachers have also been extremely nice people so far athough I didn't get to know them as well. So no I've never once had a bully math teacher. They've all been sweethearts. The closest I've had to a bully teacher was my 10th grade English teacher who for some reason just plain hated me.
  19. Aug 17, 2014 #18


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    The worst teacher I ever had was teaching catholicism first year of highschool.He was arrogant,confrontational and full of himself beyond belief.Thankfully for younger people than me, this was the very last year catholicism was allowed to be part of the normal curriculum in schools here, so they avoided this prick.

    Most bad teachers I had were french teachers.Math teachers were fine in comparison.
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2014
  20. Aug 18, 2014 #19
    Well that I sadly have seen from quite a few math teachers. It seemed to be more common the lower the level. Quite common below HS, fairly common in HS, less common undergrad and even less in grad. Ugh I hated that. I don't know that I'd equate that with being a bully though.... just with being annoying and foolish and AR.
  21. Aug 18, 2014 #20
    Maybe he didn't. If I had been one of the better student in the class I would have immediately struck him off my list of possible supervisors. Giant or not, "decent human being" tops my list of requirements.
  22. Aug 18, 2014 #21


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    Statistics teacher would answer most questions with "It's above your paygrade." She is quite arrogant and has had a bad experience with my older sister. She is also head of the NHS chapter at my school and is quite obviously the reason I wasn't accepted to the NHS, even though I am quite overqualified.
  23. Aug 18, 2014 #22


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    Maybe you would, but plenty of people would not. He generally has his pick of several excellent students. Generally, I have found that top groups are not for the faint of heart.

    Personally, I know that what topped my list was excellence in field, followed shortly by placement of students and connections with other top tier groups. Decent human being didn't make my list but fortunately my adviser turned out to be one.
  24. Aug 18, 2014 #23


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    I think this is how a lot of students think, if they even have the opportunity to think about it much at all. I mean really, students have to pick amoung the supervisors in places where they get accepted. Ideally their applications are based on some kind of assessment of the field and the potential supervisor's background in it, as well as assessments of the supervisors themselves.

    But there's a thread around here right now by a student who appears to be limiting his or her decision on which graduate schools to attend primarily based on whether or not they require the GRE. And threads along the lines of "my GPA is X where can I get in?" are reasonably common. I doubt that such students are also well-positioned to assess the personalities of potential supervisors.

    Therein, perhaps, lies the source of many student-supervisor conflicts.
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